Much ado about nothing (part 2)

Now, there are two things to note here. First of all, God acknowledged Isaac (the younger brother) and not Ishmael (the elder brother) as the true successor and heir to Abraham. Secondly, according to the original and untranslated Genesis, God referred to Himself as El Shaddai and not Eloi, Ilah or Allah.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Yesterday we talked about the tug-of-war between Malaysian Muslims and Malaysian Christians regarding ‘ownership’ of God’s name — in this case that name being ‘Allah’.

While I do not deny that many Muslims may be well tutored in their religion, Islam, this knowledge is limited to only the rules and regulations or the dos and don’ts of the religion. That is why most Muslims have the ability to talk about the Sharia and the punishment of serious crimes under the Sharia, called Hudud.

But then it ends there.

And this is why we are seeing many emotional statements coming out from Malaysian Muslims regarding whether Malay-speaking Christians should or should not be allowed to use ‘Allah’ as the name of God. 

Malaysian Christians, on the other hand, are pushing the envelope, so to speak, and are not really spot-on regarding the issue. Hence I would say that both sides in this conflict, the Muslims as well as the Christians, are arguing off tangent.

If you want to translate ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ into Bahasa Malaysia then it should be ‘Tuhan’ (God) or ‘Tuan’ (Lord) and not ‘Allah’. And if you wish to retain the Arabic for ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ then it would be ‘Rab’.

For example, verse 2 chapter 1 of the Quran is ‘Al-hamdu lillahi Rabb il-‘alamin, which means ‘Praise be to Allah, Lord (God) of the Worlds’.

In other words, God with a capital ‘G’ (His name) is ‘Ilah’ while god with a small ‘g’ is ‘Rab’.

Now, Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and not Arabic, the common language of Judea in the first century AD. The towns of Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his time, were Aramaic-speaking communities.

According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic was the spoken language of the Jews until Simon Bar Kokhba tried to restore Hebrew as the official language of the Jews during the revolt against the Romans in 132-135. Hence we need to look at Aramaic and not Arabic when we translate the name of God into another language.

In Aramaic, ‘God’ is ‘Elah’ while ‘Elahi’ means ‘my God’. And, as I said, this is the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic.

In Arabic, ‘God’ is ‘Ilah’, while ‘my God’ is ‘Ilahi’, which are actually Urdu words of Arabic origin. ‘Allah’, on the other hand, means ‘The God’ (Al Ilah), implying that Ilah is ‘the sole God’ or ‘the one and only God’.

In Aramaic, ‘Abba’ means ‘Father’ while ‘Bar Abba’ literally means ‘Son of the Father’.

The Gospel of Mathew reports Jesus as having said, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which translates to ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Hence ‘my God’ is ‘Eloi’ (or ‘Elahi’ in Aramaic) and not ‘Ilahi’ as in Arabic.

The Gospel of Luke reported Jesus as having said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, and ‘Father’ here would be ‘Abba’ in Aramaic. 

Another interesting point is that religious gift or offering (such as an animal sacrifice) in Hebrew is ‘korban’, which is found in Mark 7:11 and the Septuagint (in Greek transliteration). The Malays, too, use ‘korban’ for animal sacrifice (which they are now doing in school compounds).

We must take note that many Arabic terms are derived from the Nabateans, an ancient people who inhabited the Southern Levant between Arabia and Syria around 37-100. The Nabatean capital, Petra, was established around 312 BCE and now sits in Jordan. Hence even Arabic is not an original language as many Muslims may think.

Okay, that is the brief history of the languages of the region where Jesus came from. Hence, as to whether Allah, Ilah, Ilahi, Elahi, Eloi, etc., belong to the Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, pagans, etc., is debatable. At the end of the day, everyone borrowed from someone else and over time your language became my language, and so on. And, if you go back far enough, you can actually say that both Christians and Muslims do not have ownership over these words as both Christians and Muslims ‘stole’ these words from other people.

How is that for a new twist to the Allah word controversy?

Now let us go back to the issue of Genesis, a book written long before Christianity and Islam. I wish to talk about Genesis because both Christianity and Islam accept the stories in Genesis (mainly because these same stories appear in both the Bible as well as the Quran).

Genesis is basically a genealogical record covering a period of 2,500 years from the time of Adam and Eve (which means this is the story regarding the creation of humankind 4,000 years or so before the birth of Jesus Christ).

One very important point to note, though, is that Genesis was written 1,200 years after the event, which also means long before the birth of Christ.

The most important section of Genesis (at least as far as I am concerned) is the part about Abraham. And I say this because Judaism, Christianity and Islam all come under what we can call the Abrahamic faiths or the religion of Abraham. In fact, Muslims face the Kaaba (God’s house or Baitullah) when they do their prayers, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael.

Muslims are also supposed to make the pilgrimage to the Baitullah at least once in their lifetime. Hence the House of God or Baitullah built by Abraham and Ishmael is central to Islam. Hence, also, we need to talk about that.

According to Genesis, Abraham had a wife named Sarah who was barren and could not give him any children. Sarah had an Egyptian slave named Hagar, so Sarah told Abraham to use Hagar as a surrogate mother since she (Sarah) could not give Abraham any children.

Hagar soon became pregnant and not long after that Sarah, too, became pregnant. So now both of them were pregnant. Hagar’s son was named Ishmael while Sarah’s son was named Isaac. But Ishmael was elder to Isaac since he was born first.

Sarah soon became jealous and told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael. So Abraham dumped both of them in the desert and left them there. God, who called Himself, El Shaddai, then appeared and told Sarah that she will become the mother of all nations.

Now, there are two things to note here. First of all, God acknowledged Isaac (the younger brother) and not Ishmael (the elder brother) as the true successor and heir to Abraham. Secondly, according to the original and untranslated Genesis, God referred to Himself as El Shaddai and not Eloi, Ilah or Allah.

Genesis also tells us that El Shaddai asked Abraham to sacrifice (korban) Isaac at the altar. Just as Abraham was about to slit Isaac’s throat, an Angel appeared and stopped Abraham from proceeding. The angel then referred to Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son’ even though Abraham had one more son, Ishmael, who was elder to Isaac.

Okay, that is what Genesis tells us. Islam, however, disagrees with Genesis’s version of events. Islam says that Allah asked Abraham to sacrifice (korban) Ishmael (and not Isaac) at the altar. And just as Abraham was about to slit Ishmael’s throat, an Angel appeared and stopped Abraham from proceeding and said he should instead sacrifice an animal in Ishmael’s place.

(And that is why Muslims practice animal sacrifice once a year during Hari Raya Haji).

So there is a fundamental difference between the Genesis and Quran version of events. While both agree that the incident did happen, they disagree on which son was involved. Hence the Jews regard Isaac as Abraham’s successor and heir while the Muslims regard Ishmael as this successor and heir.

Genesis does not tell us what happened after Abraham abandoned Hagar and Ishmael in the desert at the behest of a very jealous Sarah. From hereon Ishmael is out of the picture and Isaac continues with Abraham’s legacy.

Islam, however, continues this story. Islam says that many years later Abraham visited the place where he had abandoned Hagar and Ishmael and by then Ishmael had already grown into a man. Islam further says that Allah then ordered Abraham to build the Kaaba on that spot and with Ishmael’s help Abraham built God’s House or the Baitullah.

And this is the major difference in belief between the Jews and the Muslims. The Christians, however, subscribe to the Jewish version of this story as related by Genesis and not Islam’s version as related by the Quran.

Okay, if the Christians subscribe to Genesis and not to the Quran, then God’s name should be El Shaddai and not Allah. That is the point of this whole story, which is to determine what is God’s real name as narrated by Genesis.

Oh, by the way, Jews practice circumcision, an Egyptian practice at that time — and Hagar was Egyptian while Sarah was not. Does this mean the Jews follow Hagar and not Sarah? 

Food for thought, is it not?